Monday, September 03, 2007

The Innocents

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the greatest ghost story ever written. It's been quite a few years since I read it first and I remember being obsessed by it for a long time.

The basics of the story are not really complex. A young governess goes to a country estate to look after two young kids, a ten year old boy Miles and his younger sister Flora. She soon starts seeing and hearing things in the vast gothic mansion. After some investigation she finds out that the earlier governess had committed suicide after her sadistic lover died in mysterious circumstances. Following a sequence of bizarre happenings she becomes convinced that the two are trying to influence the children from beyond the grave. Even perhaps they have already succeeded in doing that and the children are perhaps not so "innocent" as they look. They know "things" that they shouldn't, with insinuations about forbidden sexual knowledge and corruption of innocence.

Now this basic story in itself is very interesting but what makes it so tantalizing is the way James surrounds everything in ambiguities. In fact there is a long-running dispute and controversy among scholars and critics regarding the interpretation of the story. The main strand of the controversy is the argument between the so-called apparitionists, who believe that the ghosts are indeed "real" and that it is an example of the ghost story genre, and the other gang non-apparitionists who postulate the mad-governess theory, claiming that the governess, a sexually repressed hysteric, is only imagining things. With the later we are also in the Freud territory. Fear of sexuality and denial of death, these are two subconscious motivations that make her invent the apparitions and all their stories, along with the attendant sexual panic and hysteria.

I just saw this 1961 British film adaptation of the story by Jack Clayton with Deborah Kerr in the central role of the governess and I have no hesitation in calling it a masterpiece. I am not alone in my enthusiasm, Pauline Kael also called it "one of the most elegantly beautiful ghost movies ever made." It preserves all the ambiguities of the text and if one misses the complexities and oddness of Henry James's sentences, the film makes up for it by framing the story in a highly evocative and brilliant visual design. Freddie Francis, the cameraman who died recently, received an Oscar for his work in this film. The film has some brilliant long shots with low-contrast lighting and very innovative framing specially with the close-ups of character's faces. Great performances overall specially by Kerr in the lead role add to the overall effect.

There is one aspect of the film which I wanted to highlight however. The overwrought language used by the governess to describe her experiences in the book gives the whole thing a hint of parody. She, for example, repeatedly calls the ghosts "these abominations" and often uses a kind of religious vocabulary to express her horror and revulsion. When James was writing the story people were seriously interested in the paranormal phenomena and scientific study of spiritualism. James was in a way utilizing their ideas and vocabularies in a somewhat skeptical manner. This tone is missing in the film. There are also a lot of sexual innuendos and metaphors which are either missing in the film or are too obvious to be as effective as they are in the book.

In the end, all minor complaints aside, it is a great psycho-sexual horror film which works in extremely subtle ways and which remains with you long after you have seen it.

This is a good review of the film. This part about Kerr's acting is interesting:

At first blush, Deborah Kerr might have seemed a tad too . . . seasoned for the role of Miss Giddens, who James imagined as a somewhat younger lass. She was forty when she played this part; too old for her Miss Giddens to be a virtuous (if tightly wound) maiden, too young to make her an aged spinster. Either direction would have made for an easier performance and a very bad movie (try to picture Kerr working herself into something like Natalie Wood’s paroxysms of virginal torment in Splendor in the Grass and you’ll get some idea of how closely this film courted disaster). But her apparent unsuitability to the role, oddly enough, works in her favor. Kerr’s acting, regardless of the role, had always evinced a basic sensuality (it’s what kept her from turning into another Greer Garson), and while it may be hard to believe her Miss Giddens has never engaged in our most basic of mating rituals, it’s very easy to believe that she’s been fixating on them morning, noon, and night.

This reminds me of another similar film, and a classic too, about a young girl's fear of sex creating troubles inside her mind -- Roman Polanski's Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve in the central role. A recent horror film The Others with Nicole Kidman in the lead also pays explicit homage to this film and also to the original story. (The title is taken directly from the story.) All these films are really good. Of course the original story is a must-read too. Wikipedia has more information about it including links to online texts.


puccinio said...

Deborah kerr is one of the greatest actresses...though as is the case with many of them she hasn't appeared in as many great films as she should have.

But her best performances are the Powell-Pressburger films she made before she came to Hollywood - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - where she played three roles and - Black Narcissus. She was also great in - An Affair to Remember.

This is among there as well.

Alok said...

I have only seen An Affair to Remember. Always wanted to see the life and death of colonel blimp. may be this is the time.

There is a great tradition of British actors from the beginning of movies to even now. Deborah Kerr no doubt belongs to the same tradition.